KRASNAYA, POLYANA RUSSIA - Ole Einar Bjoerndalen had just become the oldest Winter Olympic individual gold medalist — at age 40 — when he was hugged by a fellow Norwegian whose records he might soon overtake.
Cross-country skiing great Bjorn Daehlie embraced Bjoerndalen in the finish area Saturday, shortly after the biathlete had pulled off an upset win in the men’s 10-km sprint at the Sochi Games.
Bjoerndalen beat the age record held by Canadian skeleton racer Duff Gibson, who was 39 when he won gold at the 2006 Turin Olympics.
“I always forget that (I’m 40). I feel like I’m 20. My age is perfect,” Bjoerndalen said. “I am in super form. I prepared well for this and I am feeling strong.”
Bjoerndalen missed one target before finishing in 24 minutes, 33.5 seconds for his seventh career Olympic gold medal, leaving him one short of the all-time mark held by Daehlie.
Earning his 12th medal overall, Bjoerndalen also tied Daehlie’s record for most medals won at the Winter Games, and looks in a strong position to overtake Daehlie as Norway is a clear favorite in both the men’s and the mixed relay competitions.
“In my eyes Bjoern is still the biggest athlete in Norway,” Bjoerndalen said. “I am just looking from race to race now. Our men’s relay is the most important for our team . . . but everyone needs to have a perfect day or it’s really tough to get a medal.”
Dominik Landertinger of Austria finished 1.3 seconds behind to take silver, and Jaroslav Soukup of Czech Republic won bronze, trailing Bjoerndalen by 5.7 seconds.
Russia’s Anton Shipulin looked a threat to Bjoerndalen for most of race until a mistake in the standing shooting saw him drop to fourth.
Pre-race favorites Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway and Martin Fourcade of France, who share eight World Cup wins this season, failed to live up to expectations and finished ninth and sixth, respectively.
Once nicknamed “The Cannibal,” Bjoerndalen said Saturday’s victory had already stilled his hunger.
“I am satisfied now. This is enough,” he said. “Everything is a bonus from now. I made my gold and that’s cool. ”
Bjoerndalen started as an outsider, not having won an individual competition on the World Cup circuit for almost two years with his last victory coming in a 12.5K pursuit in Finland in February 2012.
“It’s difficult to feel your shape on this track because it’s really hard and difficult,” he said.
After staying clear in the prone shooting, Bjoerndalen missed once in the standing shooting and had to ski a 150-meter penalty loop.
He still edged Landertinger, who shot flawlessly but couldn’t match the pace of Bjoerndalen’s skiing.
“It was a huge mistake at the shooting,” Bjoerndalen said. “I decided to shoot faster afterward as I knew I would still have a chance to win it.”
Landertinger said he wasn’t too disappointed about getting beaten by Bjoerndalen, despite the Norwegian having to ski an extra loop.
“I’m so happy that I win the silver medal, and for me it’s the perfect start to the Olympics,” the Austrian said after winning his second career Olympic silver — but first in an individual race.
Soukop was amazed to reach his first Olympic podium.
“I can’t understand that I’m here,” he said. “Really, really big surprise. I was thinking that in the 20K (individual race) maybe I can be in a strong position.”
Svendsen, the world sprint champion, led the competition after shooting clean in the first round but the Norwegian lost time when he missed once on the second. Fourcade already missed one target in the prone shooting and never recovered.
Svendsen was full of praise for his winning teammate.
“It’s just incredible. It’s hard to describe in words,” Svendsen said. “An extremely big performance for him, so it’s fantastic for our team . . . To be here like this at the age of 40 and win a gold, it’s an extremely big performance.”
Fourcade admitted to being “a bit disappointed,” before showing his admiration for Bjoerndalen, too.
“Last year everybody talked about him and said he has to retire,” the Frenchman said. “But I was one of the ones who trusted in him . . . Today he shut the mouth of all the people who were speaking about him.”
The next men’s biathlon event is the 12.5K pursuit on Monday.